Botanicals versus manmade ingredients: are natural perfumes really better for you?
There's a pretty short version of our philosophy on ingredients: when nature and science coexist, that's when you get the most amazing scents. At Jules & Vetiver, every ingredient is a careful, informed choice based on whether we’re more comfortable using something botanical, or manmade. (Which are often times called “naturals”, or “synthetics”, but we think those word choices already stack the deck with a whole lot of uncalled-for ingredient bias. So, we choose to refer to them differently.)
So, here's how we evaluate what to put in your perfume. If there’s an ethically sourced botanical that’s safe to use, we’ll use it. But sometimes, it’s a toss-up between that and a manmade equivalent that smells just as amazing. In those cases, we might use that, instead. Or maybe we’ll use a bit of both. But our perfumes are always an agnostic hybrid of beautiful, quality ingredients that we’ll combine for the safest, most responsible, most fall-in-love-worthy scents you’ll ever try. Here’s why.
Sourcing. Botanical ingredients are tricky to procure. As is the case with any crop, plants used for perfumery are at the mercy of whatever’s happening where they’re grown. Environmental issues like droughts, floods, bugs, diseases, an unusually hot or cold growing season...all these can impact the availability of botanical ingredients. This also means that quality is much harder to guarantee, which means that the end result can be really inconsistent-smelling raw materials. Plus, botanical ingredients tend to have less staying power to begin with, so solely using naturals makes it very hard, perhaps impossible, to compose fragrances that have a reliable scent. If the vanilla beans you’re using in a perfume vary from year to year, you can bet the perfumes that use them are going to be different, too. (Did you know that vanilla absolute goes black once it starts to oxidize? It’s perfectly normal, but it also doesn’t really look pretty on your skin...). So in some cases, when we know a botanical ingredient has a lot of sourcing volatility baggage, we might opt to use something else that’s just as good.
Safety. Don't be afraid of manmade. Many of us assume that because botanicals come from nature, that means they’re safer to put on our bodies. We’re all living creatures coexisting on this crazy little planet, so surely we’re meant to be entwined with Mother Earth in this way, dabbing rose dew behind our ears and drinking from clear mountain springs. That may seem instinctively logical and it does feel warm and fuzzy, but scientifically speaking, it’s not really true. (Seriously, don’t drink untreated water, no matter how clean it looks.) Manmade ingredients are crafted through the miracles of science and technology, but since that doesn’t sound as appealing as wearing the essence of a rare flower, we tend to dismiss it. But the reality is that manmade ingredients are far less likely to irritate our skin compared to botanicals. In fact, most of the widely accepted limits on what's allowed to be used in a perfume pertain to botanical ingredients, such as rose. Why? Because natural rose absolute, though it smells beautiful, is made up of hundreds of individual molecules. Any single one of those molecules, or combination of them, can irritate your skin. And, in the case of rose, there’s one molecule in particular - methyl eugenol - that’s proven to irritate sensitive skin unless it’s used in tiny, tiny doses. But, if you’re using manmade ingredients, you can recreate the exact scent of all sorts of roses using individual molecules, with no skin irritation. You're essentially stripping out the known irritants by using science to isolate the scent molecules. Is it as sexy-sounding to use Dorinia or Damascenia instead of Bulgarian Rose Absolute? Probably not. But the reality is, if you were blindfolded, you wouldn’t be able to tell which is which. Your skin might, though. Your skin will might freak out over the Bulgarian stuff if there was too much of it. (The methyl eugenol, or the myriad of other things in it, if we’re being more exact.) To sum up: we like your skin. So we avoid using botanicals if we think they'll irritate your skin. Full stop.
Sustainability. Some things in nature are best left alone. There are some scents that you can no longer get from the wild, either because obtaining them is straight illegal, or because it’s just wrong. This is why no one uses animal musks anymore - there’s a collective understanding that killing an animal to use its glands in a perfume is no-go. This is why anytime you see a musk mentioned in a perfume, it’s definitely manmade. It’s hard to argue that the “real” alternative is better when it comes to harming animals. But a responsibility towards conservation is an important factor for a lot of botanicals, too. Jules & Vetiver only uses sustainably sourced botanicals, such as plantation-grown sandalwood, but sometimes, when the manmade equivalent smells just as beautiful, we decide to use that, instead. We don't like using a botanical just for the sake of saying "natural" if it means destroying something that doesn't have to be destroyed.
Creativity. Remember that little paint palette of watercolors you used as a kid? It was a lot of fun. But imagine trying to paint a masterpiece with those eight little colored ovals. You’d soon realize you don’t have a lot of options. Working only with botanicals is similar. It can create a lot of unnecessary limitations that can hinder the creativity of a fragrance and it makes it a lot harder to craft a complex, multi-dimensional scent. So we just don’t think it’s worth it.
Are you curious to find out if you can tell the difference between a botanical and a manmade equivalent? Let us know and we’ll set you up with a simple blind smell test. (Because learning about ingredients is fun, and fun is best shared with others.)